The way Kern County elects members of its Board of Supervisors violates federal law. Following an 11-day trial in December, U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd ruled district lines supervisors drew in 2011 unlawfully dilute the political voice of Kern’s growing Latino population.
In a detailed, 70-page opinion handed down on Feb. 23, Drozd concluded the county’s decades-old way of drawing district lines is neither fair, nor legal. The process does not acknowledge Kern’s Latino population has grown from 38.5 percent in 2000 to 45.5 percent in 2010, which was revealed in the most recent U.S. Census. Likely the population is even larger today.
An attorney representing the county told reporters that Kern may appeal Drozd’s ruling. Please don’t.
Enough time and money has been spent fighting the real and ongoing complaints of minority citizens that Kern’s redistricting process is more intended to protect incumbents, than to give voters equal access to the electoral process; it is more intended to keep political interests in power by diluting the power of challengers.
Drozd has set a March 6 hearing to consider what Kern must do to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and how district lines must be redrawn.
County officials have argued that if new district lines must be drawn, they should await the 2020 U.S. Census. That means Kern’s Latino population will continue to suffer the injustice until the 2022 elections. Attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the organization that filed the lawsuit against Kern, are pressing to have district lines redrawn immediately – in advance of the June 2018 primary.
With Drozd’s hearing to be held just three days before the legally mandated deadline for candidates to file to run in two of the five supervisorial districts, having new lines drawn and become effective by June would be a daunting task that could lead to political chaos and a flawed process.
Likely Drozd will split the difference by ordering county officials to immediately begin a comprehensive process of redrawing lines that will include public workshops and hearings, and oversight by the court. That takes time. Supervisors must begin now to be ready with new, legal districts for the 2020 elections. They must not stall with a frivolous appeal.
To some, this dispute over district lines may seem like a bunch of bureaucrats and politicians picking nits. It’s much more important than that.
The MALDEF Lawsuit and trial were the first challenge to a California jurisdiction for violating the federal Voting Rights Act since 2001. It also was a warning shot aimed at other jurisdictions that use redistricting to disenfranchise voters.
There are many ways members of minority groups, or even supporters of out-of-power political parties can be disenfranchised, or prevented from electing candidates of their choice. A common one is to draw political boundaries lines in such a way as to split “communities” to dilute their voting power. That is the essence of the MALDEF lawsuit.
Only Kern’s District 5, which includes the Arvin farming community, is Latino-dominated. MALDEF successfully argued that Kern’s growing Latino population justifies establishing a second Latino-dominated district.
The judge concluded there is ample evidence that many of Kern’s elections over the past decade were racially polarized, with Latino voters overwhelmingly favoring defeated Latino candidates, but non-Latino candidates emerging victorious.
Drozd concluded Kern County’s electoral system is illegal and must be fixed - sooner than later. Kern County officials must agree and not stall.